What Would MLB Do In The Event Of A Team Disaster?

General view of atmosphere during the 81st MLB All-Star Game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim California. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Early Wednesday morning, a plane carrying members of a Russian hockey team crashed. More than 40 people died, including all the players.

The league has announced that it will, after a time of mourning, carry on with its season, and the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club will be reconstituted with:

players on loan from other clubs, free agents, and players who were on the team's MHL and VHL affiliates. Reports are that around 30 current KHL players have already volunteered to play for Yaroslavl this season.

Major League Baseball teams fly around North America dozens of times every year, and have been doing so on a regular basis for about half a century. Nothing of this sort has ever happened to an MLB team, or for that matter any other major North American professional team.  For that, we can all be grateful. But what would happen if the unthinkable occurred, and an aircraft carrying a major-league team crashed, and many players lost their lives?

As you might surmise, MLB is very, very reluctant to discuss this. In 2001, the New York Daily News reported on league contingency plans, including the NFL's and NBA's, in some detail, but of MLB's wrote only:

Baseball has a confidential contingency plan to assist any franchise that lost five or more players as the result of a tragedy. MLB spokesman Rich Levin said recently that he believes the plan would provide immediate relief for a franchise struck by a disaster.

A year later, ESPN.com's Wayne Drehs quoted Levin:

"All I can say is that, yes, we have a plan," MLB spokesman Richard Levin said. "But God forbid it should ever be needed."

This plan, according to the New York Times, has been in effect since 1965. At the time, the leagues were more separate entities than they are now; the 1966 Sporting News Baseball Guide detailed the then ten-team National League plan:

Under the N.L. arrangement, if an accident deprives one club of seven or more players, each of the other nine teams will make available a list of 12 players from their 25-man rosters. The stricken club may then pick its replacements from this group, with a limit of two players from one club. If an entire team should be lost, the remaining seven players would have to be obtained from the minors or by purchases. The cost of each player drafted under the disaster plan was set at $100,000. However, a $2,500,000 insurance fund was provided at a cost of $2,000 per club per year.

The New York Times article says a disaster plan was nearly put into use in 1992, after a bus accident involving the then-California Angels on the New Jersey Turnpike injured several players, though none seriously (Angels manager Buck Rodgers did suffer injuries serious enough to force him to take three months off from his position). The 1992 article says:

If six or more players on one team are disabled, the plan kicks in. This involves selecting players, through a draft, from the remaining teams. The league president would determine how many players are "frozen" -- or protected -- by the healthy teams. In addition, players with no-trade clauses would be protected.

That sounds like a plausible plan, and last year, former major league player Andy Van Slyke teamed up with longtime St. Louis baseball writer Rob Rains to write "The Curse", a novel whose premise revolves around the Cubs suffering a tragedy in which 23 members of the team lose their lives. Within a couple of days, MLB establishes a "disaster draft", described by a member of the team's management:

It is going to be essentially set up the same way the last expansion draft worked... only we will be the only team drafting. Every club gets to protect 20 players off its 40-man roster. We can only select players who are eligible for the 40-man. Teams can only protect eight pitchers. Once we select a player from an organization, they can pull back five more players, only two of whom can be pitchers. We can't take more than two players from any one organization.

The novel goes on to say that players with no-trade clauses or 10-and-5 rights couldn't be selected unless they waived those rights. That's fiction, but it's very likely the way MLB would re-stock a team in the event of a tragedy like this week's in Russia. In the book, games resume in about a week after the newly-constituted team begins workouts. That, too, sounds about right.

Let us all fervently hope that none of these procedures will ever be needed.

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